Michèle Roberts discovers a weed that is welcome

Dandelions may be rabbit food, but they are just as delicious as rabbit itself

My dear neighbour Claude used to come round at this time of year and pick dandelions from my garden for his rabbits. Others scoffed at my weeds, which I insisted, in my sentimental way, on calling wild flowers, but Claude would go away happily with a bulging sack. Now that he is dead, I pick the dandelions for his widow, Gisèle, who still keeps rabbits.

I decided to eat some of the dandelions myself this year. Why should the long-eared beasts get all the delicacies? As children, we were convinced that pissenlits made you piss the bed, and would not have dreamed of eating them. Their juicy stems and milky white sap were far too suggestive of their diuretic power. We were wrong, however. The plant has long been used as a cure for disorders of the liver, kidneys and skin. One reason for dandelions' health-giving properties is that their extraordinarily long tap root penetrates the topsoil, poor in nutrients, and reaches the subsoil, jam-packed with health-giving minerals.

Accordingly, I picked a good basinful. You can't do anything secretly here. Whatever you are doing, and wherever you are, a neighbour will pop up from behind a bush and engage you in chat. Just as I was turning to go back into the house, another neighbour, Constantin, who was driving his cows back from milking to their meadow, stopped to nod approvingly. He cautioned me: don't pick the leaves once the plants have flowered or they will be coarse and bitter. I made the classic salade de pissenlits for lunch, dressed with a vinaigrette based on walnut oil, and it was delicious.

I could not stop there. Having eaten rabbit food, I now wanted to eat rabbit, too. I consulted Madame Évelyne Saint-Ange's 1920s classic La Bonne Cuisine (Larousse). Her recipes are super-practical and easy to follow. If you are cooking a lunch for friends, and have an hour for pottering in the kitchen, she is the cook for you. She suggests cooking rabbit very simply. You can roast it whole, larded with fine strips of bacon, in a hot oven for 25 minutes, and then serve it sprinkled with drops of melted butter. (My friend Yvette coats the rabbit with mustard before roasting it and that is good, too.) You can sauté the rabbit à la ménagère. This involves frying the cut-up pieces of young rabbit in butter, then adding salt, pepper, chopped shallots, and loosening (déglaçant) the whole with a spoonful of water and scattering it with chopped parsley. In Normandy, you would use a tot of Calvados rather than water. But you can see how thrifty Madame Saint-Ange is. She does not recommend using expensive spirits. Hers is the best kind of plain cooking, which depends on good ingredients. I miss Claude, so I had the Calvados anyway. I raised a glass to his memory.

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